Call Me By No Name: On "Rebecca"

December 23, 2020   •   By Tania Modleski

IT MIGHT SEEM POINTLESS to write about a work as universally reviled as the Netflix adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The film, directed by Ben Wheatley in the shadow of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 classic, has received a tremendous number of negative reviews. Yet the new Rebecca affords an opportunity to consider what makes Hitchcock’s film and, especially, the novel, which has never gone out of print and as recently as 2019 appeared on the BBC News list of the 100 most inspiring novels, appealing enough to warrant another remake. It is precisely by looking at what the recent adaptation has left out of the original and what has been changed from it that we can understand the uncanny power of Du Maurier’s classic and  see how very wrong V.S. Pritchett was in his 1938 prognostication that the novel would be “here today, gone tomorrow.” It is not, I hasten to add, that reviewers haven’t spent a great deal of time lamenting the differences between the original and the remake, but in general they have only glancingly, if at all, touched on the unsettling psychological elements of the novel (and Hitchcock film) that can bypass the reader’s conscious mind, but linger in the unconscious long after.


To the extent that Wheatley’s remake has garnered any praise at all, it is largely because it allegedly represents an updated version of the story and its heroine. Lily James, who plays the protagonist, has declared that she wanted to play the role as “less of a damsel in distress,” presumably in relation to Joan Fontaine’s performance in the 1940 version. In the original story, the unnamed protagonist is a companion to a harridan, Mrs. Van Hopper (played in the Neflix adaptation by Ann Dowd), whose behavior causes her embarrassment and shame. The pair are visiting Monte Carlo when the film proper opens. A rather dowdy and gauche young woman, the heroine attracts the notice of the much older widower Maxim de Winter, owner of the famed Manderley on the Cornish coast. He proposes marriage, to her confusion, which he clears up in Hitchcock’s film by barking from an adjoining room, “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.” When they arrive at Manderley, she finds herself in over her head as mistress of such a grand estate and, most importantly, feels utterly overshadowed by Maxim’s dead first wife, Rebecca, whom everyone seemed to have adored. Rebecca’s devoted servant, Mrs. Danvers (played beautifully in the new version by Kristin Scott Thomas) makes the protagonist’s life a living hell, constantly forcing her to feel inferior to the brilliant and beautiful first Mrs. de Winter. The anguished second Mrs. de Winter is convinced that her husband is still in love with Rebecca. Eventually, when Rebecca’s body surfaces (she is believed to have drowned), Maxim confesses he hated his unfaithful first wife and murdered her, then scuttled her boat and sank her into the sea. An investigation puts Maxim under suspicion for a while, but he is cleared when Rebecca is discovered to have had cancer and thought to have committed suicide. When Mrs. Danvers learns that Maxim and his new wife will happily share Manderley, free of the shadows of the past, she sets the place ablaze.


It is amusing to see du Maurier’s readers come to the realization that the protagonist of the novel, whose title flaunts the given name of another woman — the alleged villain of the piece — is nameless, a nothing, a woman who aspires only to acquire a surname, only to be Mrs. de Winter, mistress of Manderley. Her sense of her insignificance is underlined in a scene, at once chilling and amusing, that occurs on her first day at Manderley. She is in Rebecca’s morning room, which like Rebecca’s bedroom, is a virtual shrine to the late woman’s memory; when the phone rings, she picks it up and says, “I’m afraid you have made a mistake. Mrs. de Winter has been dead for over a year,” in effect declaring her own nullity. Omitting this line in the current adaptation is only one of many ways the production chooses to render the Lily James character less abject than the original character, thereby undermining one of the perversities that make the novel (and Hitchcock’s film) stand out from many so-called Gothics. For in fact, Maxim has chosen his second wife precisely because she is childlike and plain, the very opposite of the threatening Rebecca. The new adaptation leaves out the pedophilic overtones du Maurier and Hitchcock both use to characterize Maxim’s attraction to her — such as when he tells her, “Promise me you’ll never wear black satin or pearls or be 36 years old.” Lily James’s character is more than sufficiently gauche at the beginning of the film, but part way through her arrival at Manderley she stands up to Mrs. Danvers on a couple of occasions. While in the novel, the second Mrs. de Winter matures, her strength is nothing compared to that of the James character, who after Rebecca’s body is discovered begins bossing her husband around and taking charge of events to try to secure his freedom.


Is it a coincidence that Lily James of Cinderella fame was cast as the second Mrs. de Winter? It is true, many readers have read du Maurier’s novel as a romance, a Cinderella story — a fact that rankled the author. To read it this way, one must ignore many aspects of the novel, especially the beginning, which reveals the boring afterlife of the couple’s Manderley time, as the de Winters skulk around second-rate hotels trying to avoid anyone they knew in the past. The idea that the ghost of Rebecca has been laid to rest once and for all is belied by the fact that the merest rustle of leaves reminds the couple of the sound of a woman’s swishing gown and discomposes Maxim. In contrast, the remake posits a happily-ever-after ending that annihilates the gloom of everything that has come before. Mrs. de Winter, in voice over, confides that last night she dreamt of Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers, “but this morning I woke up and left the dead behind. And as I sit behind the mirror in our stuffy little room in Cairo [here a half-dressed Maxim enters the frame — he is often half dressed providing us with some cheesy beefcake shots totally at odds with the buttoned-up Master of Manderley], this little room is just another stop in our quest to find our real home.” The last word she utters is “love,” and, as jazzy music plays on the soundtrack, the pair passionately, erotically embrace.


Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 Cinderella was praised by some critics for its fidelity to the 1950’s Disney animated version and by other critics for updating the story and making its main character somewhat feistier than the original. But I say: C’mon. Updated or no, it’s still Cinderella. If the shoe fits . . . Likewise, the new Rebecca, with its pluckier leading lady is the perfect postfeminist piece, aiming to make its heroine more “empowered,” and yet not wanting to stray far from the traditional heterosexual love story that both du Maurier and Hitchcock unsettled so provocatively.


Armie Hammer, best known for playing the older lover in the queer romance Call Me By Your Name, is a much kinder (and younger) Maxim than Hitchcock’s Laurence Olivier, who frequently loses his temper, snaps at his wife, and occasionally humiliates her in front of the servants. When Hammer’s Maxim proposes, he does so with great ardor. Even when he utters the “little fool” line, he does so tenderly, declaring his love and kissing her passionately. On one occasion, when he loses his temper, the couple even make up in bed.


Maxim’s erratic behavior is explained in the confession scene which takes place in the boat house where Rebecca conducted her many trysts. These trysts, it is hinted, included both women and men. In the novel, when Maxim details all of Rebecca’s infidelities, he adds, “She wasn’t even normal.” Feminist critics have homed in on this line — what, after all, was Maxim implying in calling her abnormal when, in fact, he had no hesitation talking about Rebecca’s male lovers? Critics have always acknowledged that Mrs. Danvers is in love with Rebecca, but the later adaptations confine the lesbian overtones to this one character. Hitchcock in particular, however, draws the second Mrs. de Winter into a kind of lesbian three-some in the lengthy scene — truncated in the remake — that takes place when she sneaks into Rebecca’s bedroom, having become as obsessed with Rebecca as Maxim ostensibly is. She goes to the window and opens some curtains, whereupon Mrs. Danvers appears behind some curtains and steps through them. “How many curtains are they going to part?” cracked my companion as we watched the Hitchcock version, recalling that curtains have at least since the middle ages been figures for the labia (today we have the unfortunate slang term “beef curtains”). Mrs. Danvers proceeds to show off Rebecca’s underwear (“made specially for her by the nuns in the convent in St. Clare”), her nightgown, through which she slides her hand (“Look, you can see my hand through it.”) and her furs — the classic female fetish. She pulls out a fur sleeve and rubs it against the face of the protagonist, who shudders (dare I say “orgasmically”?). If it’s true that Maxim no longer loves Rebecca (and I for one don’t believe it), it is doubtless true that du Maurier’s and Hitchcock’s protagonist is at least half in love with the dead woman.


By reducing the threat of the so-called villain and increasing the strength of the second Mrs. de Winter, the new film avoids what feminists looking aslant at du Maurier and Hitchcock’s works have long discerned: that it is actually Rebecca who is the secret source not just of the characters’ but, at least in part, of the readers’ and viewers’ desire. She is sexually free, makes everyone love her, and, most importantly, is killed because she challenges patriarchy and patrilineality. Maxim shoots her because she says she is carrying a child that is not his but will inherit the great Manderley (when in actuality she has cancer and is goading him to kill her).


While the new film insists, as I have said, that Rebecca’s spell has been broken once and for all, and the characters live happily ever after, du Maurier’s novel never allows Rebecca to lose her grip on the second Mrs. de Winter. As the couple drive home after (supposedly) clearing Maxim of the murder charge, his wife has a dream in which she looks in a mirror and the face she sees is Rebecca’s. Rebecca is combing her hair, which turns into a snake that the two women — now merged into a single figure — place around Maxim’s neck to strangle him. The marital union has transformed into a union between two women attempting to assassinate the potential Bluebeard.


Pedophilia, necrophilia, lesbianism, uxoricide, fantasized mariticide. Why in 2020 have the filmmakers prudishly resisted confronting the dark undertow of this classically female text? Is there something so threatening about Rebecca that she terrorizes the filmmakers, who reduce female rebellion to a story about a woman who protects her husband the wife-killer? The good news is that the negative reviews suggest that viewers may have wanted something more than a tepid Cinderella story, wanted, at least secretly, many more of the chills and thrills provided by a charismatic, powerful, uncontrollable woman who defies the very conventions this adaptation traffics in.


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